Frank Zappa: Samplin’ Fool

By Jeff Spurrier

Music & Sound Output, March 1987

Frank Zappa is a busy, busy man. With a new record out on his own Barking Pumpkin Records label, a 10-record boxed set of jive performances due this spring, interviews with journalists about his views on the PMRC music-censorship controversy, an autobiography deal just signed with Simon and Schuster, a radio special for the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, composing, editing and mixing work on new music, and a crew of employees to oversee (including a computer assistant, studio engineer and instrument specialists), it’s surprising he has any time at all.

"Today I got up at six a.m. and I came down and looked at the news for a minute and I ate a bowl of cereal and then I went in there and started typing," says Zappa, lighting a cigarette and settling back into the couch in the television room next to the studio. "At 10 I did my first interview and then I did some more typing. Then I did a second interview at 11 and I typed some more. Then Bob Rice [the computer assistant] got here and we got set up to start mixing in there and then you came. And when you’re done I’ll take the pictures for this interview and then at 5:50 I’ve got the lady from the L.A. Museum coming over. Then at 7:50 I’m going down to do a test of these VHS bumpups that I have to do for some video editing. Then at 8:50 I’ll come back to the house. I’ll probably look at the news again and figure out if I want to do digital editing or work on the Synclavier."

Ah yes – the Synclavier. Of all of his daily duties, work on the Synclavier gives Zappa the most pleasure. This miraculous melding of computers, sampled sound and digital recording has changed his life enormously. Tucked away in a corner of the extensive state-of-the-art studio located on the first floor of his L.A. home, the Synclavier is Zappa’s pride and joy. Over 80 percent of the music on his most recent release, Jazz From Hell, was performed on it.

"I’ve been in the record business since 1962, which is when I first bought a recording studio," says Zappa. And if I had had a Synclavier then, I doubt if I ever would have gone on the road. In fact I doubt if I ever would have left the house. Right now I hardly ever leave the house."

The house that Zappa built is secluded on a quiet residential street at the top of Laurel Canyon. Anonymous from the outside and protected from prying eyes by a metal gate and closed-circuit television cameras, the house contains one of the most elaborate home studios found in L.A. In addition to the main recording room (with hardwood floors and a two-story-high ceiling), there is a drum room, an isolation room, two jam-packed vaults (full of masters, demo tapes and video tapes), two Sony PCM 1524s, a PCM 1610, a PCM 1650, four BVUs for digital audio 3/4-inch video and masses of outboard gear. And of course there’s also the Synclavier system: $265,000 worth of equipment built around 24 megabytes of memory. His electrical bills average around $2,000 a month.

Zappa calls his setup a cottage industry, but it’s obviously much more than that. Thanks to the Synclavier, Zappa has entered the future world of binary composing, opening up his musical vistas to views most musicians barely dream of. "In the past, one of the considerations that every composer had to have in the back of his mind was who’s going to play it, how good are they," he says. "You can write whatever you want, but you’re going to take your chances to get a human being to do it. Now that concern is gone. You don’t have to even care anymore. You just write whatever your imagination is and if you want to hear 15 in the space of 27/64th notes – which is what I typed in this morning – you’ll get it. It’s like taking a big weight off your shoulders.

"If you write for acoustic instruments, no matter how great your composition is, the quality of the piece when it’s heard is going to be determined by the acoustics of the room, the mood and the skill of the players, the accuracy of the conductor and the budget for the rehearsal time. And basically all that is going against you – to say nothing of the possibility of copying errors when the score gets turned into parts. It’s a pretty shoddy hit-and-miss-type situation. I write stuff that is rhythmically complex and has difficult intervals. lf you had to physically play it on a real-life instrument, you would have a hard time reaching the intervals. So the machine just does it."

Of course, it’s not that simple. While the Synclavier makes Zappa’s composition process easier, there’s a vast amount of basic sampling, trimming of samples, patch building and primary editing that has to be done before the music comes out of the speakers. And although he is working on the leading edge of computerized composing, Zappa says he still relies on basic skills he learned nearly 25 years ago when he took over a small recording studio in Cucamonga, California.

"That experience gave me all the basic experimentation time I needed to develop the techniques I still use today," he says. "Making multi-layer overdub recordings is a tricky business. There are a lot of things you can do which will sound ugly. There’s only one way to learn it, and that’s to get in and do it. There are no competent textbooks on anything like that. It’s not easy figuring out how you get that sound: the sound that’s in your head. You look at a roomful of equipment and you have to know what to plug in to make a sound."

To get the "particular sound" he’s looking for now, Zappa, engineer Bob Stone, and Bob Rice spend hours recording samples of real instruments in the studio. These samples are then trimmed and stored in the Synclavier’s memory, "like little specimens, a little pin stuck through each and placed in a jar." The samples are then linked together to build patches, lists of samples which "live" under selected notes on the Synclavier keyboard.

The work may be tedious, but the process is not as cut-and-dried as it sounds. "You have to make little editorial decisions when you make a sample," explains Zappa. "You have to decide is it going to be dry or ambient, do you want to have a long, deluxe sample or something more compact? Is it going to be looped? Some samples will stretch for octaves and others won’t stretch but a couple of notes. Some things start to sound fake even stretching a minor third. Pianos don’t stretch well. Harps stretch nicely. A harp note at C3 will stretch all the way to C7. Classical guitar stretches well also but fuzztone guitar doesn’t stretch worth a shit.

"It has to do with the complexity and characteristics of the sound. Your ear doesn’t want to believe that a single oboe note in the middle register is going to stretch more than a half or a whole step. Consequently certain instruments require more memory in RAM to live in there because there are more samples involved. Our stereo grand piano uses up 20 megabytes of RAM because the patch samples every other note in stereo. But it sounds like the real deal."

The real deal is important to Zappa. He says he doesn’t use the Synclavier "as a cake decorator" but rather as an integral tool in composition. "Once the samples are captured and trimmed and I can hear what it is, then I can start hearing uses for it," he says. "I can see a composition build up just around a group of samples. The basic things we use all the time live on one of the Winchesters [disk drives]. Classical guitar, three or four different types of drum sets, different percussion patches. clarinets, bassoons – things that are used frequently are stock. Then all the specialty stuff we pull off the floppies?"

It may not sound much like normal music-making to the average musician, and indeed Zappa’s love affair with the Synclavier has produced some unusual results. Jazz From Hell doesn’t appear to even exist in the same universe as earlier Zappa classics such as Cruising With Ruben and the Jets, 200 Motels or his joke songs "Valley Girl" and "Dancin’ Fool." But for Zappa the Synclavier pieces are not songs.

"I don’t think of these things I’m doing on the Synclavier as songs," he clarifies. "I think of them as items. They’re not necessarily in song form. They’re little compositions. The longest one I’ve done is 22 minutes, but most of them are in the five- to seven-minute range – a little long for a song and a little short for a symphony. And I approach them in an entirely different way than if I were writing a rock & roll song. Usually [a rock & roll song] starts off with a joke someone in the band has said or something you saw on television. You get some words and then you set them to music. Rock & roll is usually a lyric-generated medium."

The Zappa approach to his Synclavier "items" is as freeform as the system allows. There is no set pattern to the selection of samples, no chronological order to the birth of a song (Jazz From Hell took about eight months to make, but some of the bits and pieces began more than six years ago). And when it comes time to lay down tracks, the music goes where Zappa’s whim takes him.

"It just depends on the kind of piece we’re working on," he explains. "You can start from the end, start from the middle, start from the beginning, start from the edge. You can enter an idea. It may be the first thing you put in, but its location in the piece can be adjusted to any place in time. For example, you could start off with a little five-note figure, play it on the keyboard, and say, ‘Okay, I designate you to be the hook.’ But that doesn’t mean when you push the button that’s the first thing you hear, because you can turn a knob and locate those five notes a minute and 10 seconds into the piece. You can just dial it on down. You can also play in five notes and copy them as many times as you want and have those five notes played by all different instruments and make that figure appear any place you want.

"And then you play it literally however you want. If it’s guitar then you play it on the guitar, literally. You choose the classical guitar patch, bring it to the keyboard, start playing it and you think like a guitar player. We’ve got a nice patch of mandolin tremolos. It’s pressure-sensitive so we’ve got dynamics. We call it up and get in there and become an Italian for a minute."

With all these machines around, it’s natural to wonder if Frank Zappa, a musician famous for his live shows, misses the sensuality of touring with a live band. "Sensuality?" he responds incredulously. "Please. I don’t miss sweat, I don’t miss stink, and I don’t miss dressing-room food. I don’t miss spending the entire day in airports. I don’t miss any of that." He’d much rather spend his entire day in front of the little green screen, watching notes dance across in front of him. Or more precisely, that’s how he’d prefer to spend his nights – his preferred time of work.

"The thing that’s great about working at night, especially around here, is that the phone rings too much during the day time," he says. "I’d just as soon sleep through that shit and work when nobody’s bothering me. Basically it’s a fairly unglamorous thing to do: sit in front of that terminal and type and type and type. You don’t need an audience for that, somebody keeping you company and holding your hand. It’s just something that’s got to be done. Same with the digital editing. It’s not a spectator sport. It’s like assembly-line work. Comfortable assembly-line work. It’s either very cut and dried, because you’re assembling stuff that’s fairly obvious, or it’s very subjective, because you have to make an editorial decision about where the guitar solo gets boring, how you get in and out of it.

"Last week I was getting up late. One night I got up at 10 at night and went to bed the next day at two in the afternoon and I felt terrific. And then suddenly one day I had this meeting at seven in the evening and it made me get up early and it screwed up my entire schedule. I’d be on nights right now if it hadn’t been for that meeting. My body gets used to doing that. I’m totally happy to never see the sunshine."

Zappa is also totally happy to avoid breaks from his work. He says the closest he gets to a vacation is watching CNN; his current outside musical experience is limited to the advertising jingles he hears during the news.

Amidst all the activity, one question remains: will Zappa ever feel the urge to cast off his frenetic schedule and move at a more leisurely pace? He estimates that about 50 percent of his work has yet to be put on vinyl. What will happen to the vaults full of material, the studio, the "cottage industry" he’s built up in his cozy home?

"You mean when I don’t want to work anymore?" he snorts. "Get a yacht like Simon Le Bon? We’ll worry about that when I get to it. My biggest problem is I can’t imagine doing anything else. I’m not interested in sports or any other form of recreation."

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)